Book review — A Lawyer’s Journey: The Morris Dees story

It’s easy to see the modern Ku Klux Klan (KKK) not as the domestic terrorism organization that murdered and oppressed black and Jewish people for decades, but as a small group of impotent ragers making noise on the fringes of society. And it’s equally tempting to see this diminished stature as the direct result of society coming to realize that the KKK’s views are abhorrent. But for as much as we might like to think that American society marginalized the KKK on its own, credit also goes to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The SPLC’s novel suits against KKK organizations helped bring legal constraints and financial ruin to prominent KKK organizations in a time when they were feeding off the resentment festering in the wake of the civil rights movement.

At the center of the suits was SPLC co-founder Morris Dees. In his book, co-authored with Steve Fiffer, Dees tells his story. He talks about how his upbringing as the son of a poor Alabama farmer shaped his life and his resulting career as a private attorney and the leader of a prominent anti-hate-group non-profit.

I received a copy of A Lawyer’s Journey after making a donation to the SPLC. If I knew I was going to receive a copy when I made the donation, I had certainly forgotten by the time it showed up. The title hardly suggested an exciting read and I didn’t know who Dees is. Nonetheless, I picked it up. Within a few chapters, I had a hard time putting it down.

As a white person who grew up in the (nominally) not-South during the time many of the cases in question were tried, I had very little knowledge of the efforts the SPLC and others made to stop the KKK in the 1980s. I assumed that the KKK went away because polite society realized it couldn’t tolerate white supremacy. Instead I learned how a few very motivated lawyers (and their brave clients) went toe-to-toe with the KKK using legal strategies that had never been tried.

As interesting as the content is, this book is not great from a literary point of view. The timeline jumps around without a clear reason. As with any autobiography, readers are obliged to read with a critical eye. Even if Dees is entirely truthful in what he tells, he presents only what he wants the reader to see. He mentions his divorces in passing, but his personal life beyond his teens years is largely absent. Apart from describing the time he and his daughter fled to a panic room (and her subsequent attendance at a major trial), we don’t know what effect the lawyer’s journey had on his family’s journey.

Given the recent resurgence of nationalism and white supremacism, this book deserves a read. People can fight hatred in many ways, and Morris proved that civil suits can be effective.